Introduction to the Gospel of John: a commentary & meditation 

Who is Jesus of Nazareth? This is the fundamental question which the Gospel of John poses for us. John develops his gospel to answer that question using compelling evidence and eye-witness testimony.

John, the youngest of the twelve apostles, wrote his gospel late in life, around 100 AD, in the city of Ephesus, a Greek-speaking center of commerce and culture. By that time the vast majority of Christians were no longer converts from Jewish communities, but people who lived in a world dominated by the culture, thought, and worldview of Greece and Rome. John appealed to their powers of reason and reflection to consider who Jesus claimed to be.

John’s style and focus is very different from the other three gospel accounts by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark presents a clear-cut account of the facts of Jesus’ life and ministry; his style is plain, direct, and literal. Matthew focuses on a systematic account of Jesus’ teaching. Luke describes Jesus as the friend of all. In contrast to these three, John’s gospel is more reflective, profound, and spiritual. Augustine of Hippo likens John to the eagle who can soar higher than any other bird, because John’s “spiritual understanding compared to the eagle, has elevated his preaching higher, and far more sublimely, than the other three” (in his Harmony of the Gospels 1.6.9).  John had 70 years from Jesus’ death and resurrection to reflect upon what Jesus had said and done. He goes beyond the literal message and historical facts to help people understand the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus himself – including his teaching, life, and miracles.

Seven statements and seven signs
John carefully selected seven statements and seven signs to answer the question, “Who is Jesus and how can we be certain that his claims are true?” These statements each begin with the declaration “I am:”

  1. “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48-51)
  2. “I am the light of the world” (8:12, 9:5)
  3. “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9)
  4. “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (10:11,14)
  5. “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
  6. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
  7. “I am the true vine” (15:1,5)
In the Bible, no other person but Jesus dared to speak in this manner, not even Moses or the prophets who spoke in the name of God. Jesus claims what only God himself can claim. He is the source of life itself, and he has power not only to create, but to sustain, and restore life as well.  Jesus’ “I am” statements echo the very name which God revealed to Moses in the burning bush at the foot of Mount Horeb.
13 Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, `The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)
When people encountered Jesus they recognized that he spoke and acted with extraordinary power and authority. When Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, met Jesus, he exclaimed: “No one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus recognized that Jesus’ authority and power came from God. When Nathaniel first heard about Jesus, he refused to believe that the Messiah could come from Nazareth. When Jesus spoke words of life and revelation to him, Nathaniel recognized Jesus’ true identity: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Jesus remarked that Nathaniel would come to see even greater things – “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51).

“Signs and wonders”
Jesus claimed to be more than a great prophet, teacher, and miracle worker. His signs demonstrate the power and presence of God among his people. When Jesus speaks God speaks. When Jesus acts God acts. He performs the same “signs and wonders” which God did when he brought the people of Israel through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the promised land (Deuteronomy 26:8-9).

When the people could find no food in the barren wilderness, Moses gave them manna for their daily provision. Jesus offers himself as the “bread of life” and the “bread from heaven” which sustains us on our journey towards heaven. This bread from heaven produces eternal life within us.

Moses gave the people water to drink when they were dying of thirst in the wilderness.  Jesus offers himself as a river of living water that never runs dry and that produces everlasting life for those who drink from its fountain.

When the people of Israel were lost in the wilderness, God directed them by means of a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.  Jesus is the one true source of light that dispels the darkness of sin and unbelief and shows us the true path to everlasting life with God.

Seven signs reveal Jesus’ nature and power
John singles out seven signs which Jesus performed because they reveal his glory and point to a deeper spiritual reality of who Jesus claims to be – “the Christ (the Anointed Messiah), the Son of God”  (John 20:30).

  1. Jesus performed his first sign when he changed water into wine at a wedding feast (2:1-12).
  2. With a word of command Jesus healed the son of a royal official (4:43-54).
  3. Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (5:1-15).
  4. Jesus multiplied seven loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand people who gathered to hear him (6:1-15).
  5. Jesus walked on water and calmed the waves to rescue his disciples caught in a life-threatening storm at sea (6:16-24).
  6. Jesus healed a man born blind, giving him sight (9:1-12).
  7. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after Lazarus was in the tomb for three days (11:1-44).
These signs reveal Jesus’ supernatural mastery over the created material world. They demonstrate that Jesus is master over nature, disease, sickness, and death. They show that he had power to create, restore, and make new again what has been broken, lost, or destroyed. These signs point to a power and a kingdom that is greater than the sum of all earthly powers and empires past and present. They point to God who is all-powerful and merciful, all-wise and loving, all-knowing and at the same time compassionate. These signs not only reveal God’s presence, they demonstrate God’s power to heal, restore, and give life. Jesus came to restore a broken, sinful humanity and to raise it to everlasting life with God.

John concludes his description of the seven signs with the statement that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). John’s whole purpose in writing his gospel account is to help us grow in faith and knowledge of who Jesus truly is, the Son of God who died for our sins and who rose victorious over death so that we might have abundant life and be united with him and the Father forever.

Jesus’ hour of triumph and glory
The culmination of Jesus’ life and mission is what John’s Gospel calls Jesus’ “hour of glory.” This turning point occurs shortly before the feast of Passover, just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, when Jesus declares:

"The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. ..Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show by what death he was to die. (John 12:23,27,31-32 )
This “hour” marks a definite point in time when Jesus will fulfill the mission he has been given by the Father. This hour of glory is Jesus’ crucifixion. John describes Jesus’ death on the cross as his exaltation – his being lifted up on high. His atoning death cancels the debt of sin, defeats the power of Satan, the present ruler of the world, and brings pardon, freedom, and new life to all who accept him as Lord and Savior.

On the night before he died, Jesus prays and explains to his disciples how his obedience to his Father’s will results in glory for his Father and the reward of everlasting life for all who believe in him.

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do” (John 17:1-4).
The author of the fourth gospel
John had a prominent role in the life and ministry of Jesus. He was part of the inner circle of disciples (Mark 3:17; 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Acts 1:13; Galatians 2:9) along with Peter and James who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah. Unlike the other disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemani, John follows Jesus and waits in the courtyard of Caiphas, the high priest who was to charge Jesus with blasphemy and insurrection. John was also with Jesus at the foot of the cross on Golgatha. As Jesus is dying on the cross, he entrusts his mother into John’s care and he takes her into his own home. John was the first apostle who witnessed Jesus’ empty tomb and who professed that Jesus had truly risen (John 20:2-10). He was present at the last appearance of Jesus before his departure to his Father in heaven. John states that he bore witness to what he had seen, heard, touched, and experienced firsthand in his encounter with Jesus (John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3). John’s relationship with Jesus was marked by a special friendship, familiarity, and intimacy not seen in the other disciples. In the Gospel of John he is described as the one whom Jesus loved, and the one who sat at Jesus’ breast (John 13:23-25; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20).

Some historical reflections from early church sources on John’s Gospel

  1. Irenaeus (130-200 AD), bishop of Lyons, received his account of John, the disciple of the Lord, from Polycarp (69-155 AD), bishop of Smryna, who knew John and had conversed with him. Irenaeus wrote: “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leant upon his breast, himself also published the gospel in Ephesus, when he was living in Asia.”
  2. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) was a teacher, scripture scholar, and head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt. He took refuge in Jerusalem during the persecution by the emperor Severus in 201-202. He states that John, who wrote the last account, “composed a spiritual gospel.” “Last of all, John perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel.”
  3. The Muratorian Canon, a document written in Rome and dating 180-200 AD, contains a list of the books of the New Testament. It explains how the Gospel of John came to be written:
    1. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow disciples and bishops pleaded with him, he said, “Fast with me for three days, and then we'll tell each other whatever may be revealed to any of us.” That very night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should write everything in his own name as they remembered them.
      As a result, although different points are taught to us in the various books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers. In all of them under [the influence of] one imperial Spirit, everything is told which concerns the Lord’s birth, his suffering, his resurrection, his conduct with his disciples, and his twofold coming: the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is still in the future.
      What a marvel it is, then, that John presents these various things so consistently in his letters, too! He says in his own person, “What we have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written.” For in this way he testifies that he is not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer. Besides that, he is also the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.
  4. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340), a scholar and church historian, comments on the difference between John’s Gospel and the other three accounts written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke :
    1. Matthew at first preached to the Hebrew people. The day came when he had to leave them and to go to other nations. Before he went he set down his story of the life of Jesus in Hebrew, “and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.” After Mark and Luke had published their gospels, John was still preaching the story of Jesus orally. “Finally he proceeded to write for the following reason. The three gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his hands too, they say that he fully accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.... They therefore say that John, being asked to do it for this reason, gave in his gospel an account of the period which had been omitted by the earlier evangelists, and of the deeds done by the Savior during that period; that is, of the deeds done before the imprisonment of John the Baptist.... John therefore records the deeds of Christ which were performed before the Baptist was cast into prison, but the other three evangelists mention the events which happened after that time.... The Gospel according to John contains the first acts of Christ, while the others give an account of the latter part of his life” (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 5:24).
  5. Augustine of Hippo (345-430 AD ), in his Harmony of the Gospels, contrasts John with the other three evangelists – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
    1. In the four Gospels, or rather in the four books of the one Gospel, Saint John the apostle, not undeservedly in respect of his spiritual understanding compared to the eagle, has elevated his preaching higher and far more sublimely than the other three… For the other three evangelists walked with the Lord on earth but this evangelist, as if he disdained to walk on the earth, just as in the very opening of his discourse he thundered on us, soared not only above the earth and above the whole compass of air and sky, but even above the whole army of angels and the whole order of invisible powers, and reached to him by whom all things were made, saying, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). (in his Harmony of the Gospels 1.6.9)
       

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    (c) 2010 Don Schwager